With the US House of Representatives representing the people, and the US Senate representing the states (more so prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, but that’s another discussion), the US Congress is a recognizable extension of the “mixed-government” rationale for legislative bicameralism.
Conventional wisdom is that separation-of-power political systems are inherently conservative in the sense of being a status-quo preserving institution. As one adds veto points to the legislative process, the thought goes, less legislation will be implemented relative to a system with fewer veto points.
In both parties’ primaries a real populist is running, the kind of person many of the Framers would have called a demagogue. On the Republican side, the billionaire says we can deport all illegal immigrants and he will persuade Mexico to give the money to build a fence. Although he proclaims himself a conservative, his most substantial complaint about big government appears to be that he is not running it.
On the Democratic side, a self-proclaimed socialist argues that the problem with government is that it is not even bigger. He wants to sharply raise taxes and provide more government jobs. He also wants to criminalize all kinds of voluntary acts, from choosing to work at mutually agreeable wages to trading goods and services with foreigners, including those for whom that trade may mean the difference between subsistence and penury. This tribune of equality would ground down the truly destitute of the world. And, sadly, both these candidates are riding pretty high in the polls.
But these candidacies actually show the relative health of the United States compared to the most comparable democracies—those in Europe. Our populists of right and left are less bad then their populists, less likely to win power, and even in power less likely to do permanent damage.
These days the main questions in constitutional theory involve questions of interpretation – in particular, whether one should follow the original meaning of the Constitution or its evolving meaning or some mixture of the two. (One might also see this question as involving a related question – whether one’s theory of the Constitution should be about the document or about the practices of the country over time.)
But some years ago, constitutional theory focused on a different question – what is the dominant character of the Constitution. Some people argued that the Constitution is a fundamentally democratic document, essentially allowing a majority of the country to rule, except where the process of democratic rule is subject to infirmities. That is one way to understand John Hart Ely’s incredibly important book, Democracy and Distrust. The apparently majoritarian features of the Constitution – that legislation can be passed by a majority of the legislature – is the strongest support for this view.
Other people argue that the Constitution is fundamentally about protecting individual rights. These people can point to the Bill of Rights as well as the 14th Amendment as the main support for their view. These people might also point towards the Lockean roots of the political theory that inspired the Constitution.